Theatres of War - Background

I became aware of the re-opening of the San Carlo theatre in Naples in 1943 from an article by Richard Morrison entitled One Man’s War – A Fight for the Opera which appeared in the T2 section of The Times on 6 November 2003. In it he outlines the role played by a Lieutenant (later Captain) Peter Francis of the Royal Artillery.

In 2003 the 60th anniversary of the landings in Italy led to extensive media coverage about the campaign and several new books were published. I was particularly moved by Matthew Parker’s Monte Cassino, which graphically records the desperate conditions in which the armies fought.

I read many other accounts of the war in Italy. I would mention in particular Italy’s Sorrow by James Holland, which gives an important insight into the effect of the war on the Italian population.

Regarding conditions in Naples in 1943 and 1944, there could be no better guide than Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. But I also benefited from reading L’Odore della Guerra by Sergio Lambiase and G Battista Nazzaro and Polvere di Piselli by Paolo De Marco. The best novel I have discovered about Italian life in the 1940s is Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel.

As part of my research I visited the beautiful San Carlo theatre where the staff helpfully provided material about the theatre during the war although most of the records had been lost. They also referred me to the great three volume history Il Teatro di San Carlo 1737 – 1987 by Bruno Cagli and Agostino Ziino.

I also read the short history of the San Carlo Opera House by Lieutenant KG Cleveland RA that was included in programmes for the 1944/45 opera season. This confirms the role Peter Francis had played in the re-opening but says that on 18 January he had to return to his unit and Captain B Grayson RASC took his place.  

Theatres of War is a work of fiction

The characters in the novel are invented and are not, in any way, based on the real soldiers referred to above. Furthermore the scenes described are entirely fictional. 

Nonetheless, as far as possible I have respected the background events that occurred in 1943 and 1944.

When it came to the battle scenes this created a dilemma, as I was determined that nothing should take away from the bravery and sacrifice of the men who fought in the actual battles. I therefore invented the 3rd Battalion and the engagements in which they fought at Salerno, Mignano Gap and Monte Cassino. But whilst the accounts in the novel are fictional, they are intended to mirror real battles.

There are mentions in the novel of Generals Montgomery and Mark Clark but they play no part in the story. Harold Macmillan is referred to in his capacity as UK High Commissioner to the Advisory Council for Italy. Alistair Horne’s biography of the future Prime Minister also recounts the part played by Andrei Vyshinsky, the intimate of Stalin, who arrived in Italy in January 1944 as the Soviet representative to the Advisory Council. However, the suggestion that Mr Macmillan planned to entertain Vyshinsky at the opera is my invention.

 © rjjhall 2014